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What Is Ontario’s New ‘Right to Disconnect’ Law?

Key Takeaways

1. The right to disconnect law gives employees the right to detach from work activity outside of work hours. The government of Ontario has implemented the right to disconnect law for companies with employees of 25 people or more.

2. With many people now working remotely, the line between work and home life has become more blurred and employees are likely to find it more difficult to “switch off” from work.

3. The right to disconnect is important because it aims to avoid burnout and unproductivity among employees, which ultimately affects the success of a business.

4. Many countries around the world have enforced the right to disconnect law. With the increase of remote working, it is likely that in future, many companies will build up a culture of remote working. Therefore it is important for companies to comply with this law to promote staff wellbeing and productivity.

There is no doubt that remote working is the future. Many companies have found that workers seem to get more done at home, but is it at the cost of being constantly “switched on”? This phenomenon is sometimes known as ‘digital presenteeism‘ or ‘virtual presenteeism’. 

Many countries have already implemented the right to disconnect law into employment and labor laws which gives employees the right to detach from work activity outside of work hours. The right to disconnect is important due to the fact that it promotes the well-being and mental health of employees and means they are not burning out easily and underperforming. Overall, it is in the best interests of a company that its employees are on top form so that they can produce better quality work, which overall, helps the business.

We currently live in a world where remote work is the norm and having physical distance between work and home life is in a lot of cases, nonexistent. This makes it more difficult for people to feel as though they are able to actually stop working.

The Ontario government has proposed a new employment law to amend the Employment Standards Act 2000 which includes a requirement for employers to provide a written policy regarding employees disconnecting from work.

Any company doing business in Canada through an Ontario office needs to carefully consider the ‘right to disconnect’ alongside their general Canada labor law obligations. 

What Is the Definition of the ‘Right to Disconnect’?

The “right to disconnect” is defined as the right of an employee not to be expected to engage in business activity out of hours including answering work calls, emails, or other work-related communications.

The Ontario government’s goal behind the new employment law is to allow employees time to “disconnect” and have downtime away from the daily pressures of work in order to support wellbeing and avoid burnout. As such, there has been a suggestion that the “right to disconnect” policy may include formulating email response time expectations and turning out-of-office notifications on.

Since the global pandemic, working life has dramatically changed. Many people now work remotely instead of having to attend a physical office. This has inevitably led people to feel as though the line between work and home life has become more blurred. Whilst before, employees were more able to switch off once they had left the office for the day, now, they may have that temptation or pressure to be expected to answer work communications after hours.

The “right to disconnect” acknowledges that it is a human right for people to be able to enjoy their private life without having to worry about work. In many cases, work-life has imposed itself on people’s home lives with the majority of employees having to work from home through lockdowns. Disconnecting from work now in today’s digital world is arguably more important than ever.

How Does this Compare with the ‘right to Disconnect’ Law in Other Countries?

Spain

In Spain, the remote working law includes a right to disconnect law which enforces a work/life balance by implementing a limitation on business and work communication out of office hours. The remote working law sets a requirement on employers and employees to agree to remote working conditions including a right to disconnect at a certain time in the day.

France

The French government passed the El Khomri Law which puts the onus on employers and unions to come to an agreement on an employee’s right to disconnect that best fits the company. This could include providing a cut off point to responding to emails in a day and redirecting emails to appropriate people when members of staff are out of the office.

Portugal

As a result of employees working overtime and burning out during pandemic lockdowns, the Portuguese government has implemented labour laws making it illegal for employers to contact employees out of hours. It is also noted that employers should allow workers 11 hours of rest and time to disconnect from work before the next workday. Whilst Portugal has not directly introduced a right to disconnect law, the change in labor law indirectly impacts an individual’s ability to disconnect after work.

How Can Companies Comply with the Right to Disconnect?

The bill proposed by the Ontario government requires that those employers with 25 or more employees must have an internal policy document outlining its guidance on disconnecting from work. The law does not specify what a company should include in its internal policy and therefore it is down to the discretion of the company to make a judgement. The obligation is on the company to communicate its expectations with its employees. The law acknowledges the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all, ideal way of implementing this policy and that it is down to individual company needs. Further to this, some industries may not find it relevant to have disconnection periods.

It is likely that an employer will produce a guidance or employee handbook outlining the “right to disconnect” procedures within the company which will be presented to a new employee on signing the contract of employment or offer letter. It is therefore suggested that employees carefully read the policy and consult an employment lawyer before signing.

In order to comply with the internal policy, employers can outline how they will give an employee a “right to disconnect.” This can include confirming the number of hours that an employee is required to work in line with maximum hour work laws. Generally in Ontario, without an agreement, an employee should not be asked to work more than 8 hours per day.

Employers could include “wellbeing hours” allowing employees time out of the day to focus on their well-being and be prompted to disconnect from work. Companies could also provide rules which state that calls and emails should not be made out of hours and that when employees are away, they should put an out of office on.

In saying this, there is only so much that employers can do to encourage and plan for disconnected hours in the day. However, it could be argued that there is some responsibility on the employee to “switch off” from work. Whilst a company can put certain policies in place is it ultimately down to the employee to actually go about implementing those policies. If employees continue to work overtime, answer calls and emails whilst not at work, and ultimately burn out, as a result, this defeats the purpose.

It is therefore important for employers to make it clear to employees that the “right to disconnect” policy exists. This poses the question, to what extent should companies go to enforce the right to disconnect law? It would be presumed that providing companies take reasonable steps to provide employees with the opportunity to disconnect, they have complied with this law.

This raises the question: What more can companies do? Having regular check-ins or supervision meetings between manager and employee will allow people the opportunity to express any external pressures they are feeling. With these meetings, it can be standard procedure to ask about whether the individual is disconnecting. It may also be possible to track when employees are logging on and off the computer to ensure that they are working within the expected hours. However, it is also important that employers strike the right balance between imposing on the employee’s life and acting in their best interests.

It is worth emphasizing that an employer must ensure that the right to disconnect is applied consistently across employees, without discrimination. Read more about Canadian equal opportunity law at The Employer’s Guide to Canada Anti-Discrimination Law.

Conclusion

In an age where remote working appears to be the future, it is important that employers take note of potential problems that remote working may cause, and consider what their remote work policy will be. With the gap between home life and work-life being closer than ever as a result of the global pandemic, many employees may find that disconnecting from work tasks and communications is difficult, which therefore will inevitably lead to burnout. Employers must be careful of this as burnout leads to unproductivity and potentially deteriorating mental health and wellbeing.

Therefore, by complying with the right to disconnect law, employers are able to work towards building a stronger working relationship with their staff and promoting the overall productivity of the business.

Horizons ensures compliance with all remote working laws when hiring employees in Canada, administering employee benefits in Canada, or taking care of payroll. Should you require assistance with hiring workers remotely we would be pleased to help. 

Contact us for further information.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

France was the first country to pass a law in favour of digital disconnection. The El Khomri Law was put in place in 2017 and leaves it up to the individual company to decide how they will incorporate the law into the business effectively.

The right to disconnect law is a requirement under employment or labour law for employers to put policies in place to allow employees to disconnect from work out of hours. Having a company culture that promotes a good work/life balance is important, particularly where staff work remotely.

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